Making money from microbes
Making money out of microbiology is not new.
It has been suggested that the origins of the
earliest fermented beers range back as far as
5,000 years. Like the other staples arising from micro-
organisms, bread, wine and cheese, beer played an
important part in early economies. In the last century,
microbiology underwent two revolutions and in both
cases the scientific developments and social benefits were
dependent on interaction between scientists and new
industries. Now in the midst of the second revolution,
recombinant DNA, some of the features that have led to
successful commercialization of scientific ideas are
becoming apparent. These have included:
The availability of venture capital
Flexible employment contracts permitting staff of
academic institutions to play a leading role in the
formation of companies
A scientifically driven and flexible regulatory
A culture of enterprise. behind, but revenues increased by 10 % in 2002 to 7 6 ABOVE:
Evaluating the microbiological
billion Euros while employment slipped a little to
safety of new products.
It is no accident that the biotechnology revolution 33,000. While the focus of microbiology remains on
COURTESY BIORELIANCE INC.
started in the USA and particularly in California where the healthcare and food industries, new microbiological
all of these elements have combined with outstanding applications are emerging. Microbiology has been
success. In other countries where one or more of these playing an increasing part in environmental remediation
elements has been lacking, progress has been delayed, and the first steps have been made in applying the science
despite the presence of world-class academic research. In to nanotechnology. Despite the setbacks that have been
Germany the ‘gene laws’ and rigid academic contracts encountered, gene therapy will evolve as an adjunct
inhibited biotechnology company development until therapeutic modality for cancer treatment and as a
the second half of the 1990s. In 1996 the German treatment for some genetic diseases.
government initiated a programme to create one of the In this edition of Microbiology Today, the experiences of
world’s leading biotech sectors by 2000. While this microbiologists who have had the courage to start new
policy resulted in a burst of company formation, rising companies and the experiences of scientists involved in
from 225 in 1999 to 370 by 2001, the hasty creation of public policy and safety provide a valuable insight into
so many companies has inevitably led to failure of some the commercialization of microbiology. Microbiology
and by 2002 the number had fallen to 360. has a claim to be one of the major beneficial influences
In the UK, the availability of start-up venture capital on societies in the last century. Technological change is
was certainly a problem in the 1980s and until recently often the driving force of social change and in this
entrepreneurial activities were viewed with some dis- century microbiology will continue to transform lives
quiet by the academic community. Nevertheless, the UK in ways yet to be imagined. Continued success will
now has a thriving biotech industry with two primary depend upon public understanding and acceptance of
Bioscience 2015. Improving
centres in the London, Cambridge, Oxford triangle and a our discipline, and upon synergistic and equitable
National Health, Increasing
second one based around the biomedical universities in arrangements between academia and industry.
National Wealth. DTI/Pub
Scotland. A notable feature of the Scottish development
has been the involvement of Enterprise Scotland, a David Onions is Professor of Veterinary
Endurance: The European
government agency that has assisted in the creation Virology at The University of Glasgow and was a
Biotechnology Report 2003.
of a receptive environment for biotechnology. One of the founder of Q-One Biotech which was recently
Ernst & Young (2003).
innovations in Scotland has been the establishment of acquired by BioReliance.
McMillan, R.A., Paavola,
Intermediary Technology Institutes aimed at fostering Tel. 0141 946 9999
C.D., Howard, J., Chan,
the transfer of academic activities into new industries. email firstname.lastname@example.org
S.L., Zaluzec, N.J. & Trent,
Biotechnology is becoming one of the leading
J.D. (2002). Ordered
industries of the first half of this century. In the US
nanoparticle arrays formed
biotechnology already generates annual revenues of 26
on engineered chaperonin
billion Euros and employs 142,000 people, many of
protein templates. Nat Mater
them with backgrounds in microbiology. Europe lags 1, 247–252.
MICROBIOLOGYTODAY V OL 31/FEB 04 3